josh blog

Ordinary language is all right.

One could divide humanity into two classes:
those who master a metaphor, and those who hold by a formula.
Those with a bent for both are too few, they do not comprise a class.

newest | archives | search | about | wishlist | flickr | email | rss

26 Jan '16 06:51:51 AM

One of those nights where you remember every lover. Not by trying, nor not trying, just one, then another, and another.

26 Jan '16 01:34:20 AM

Celan the aphorist

26 Jan '16 01:33:02 AM

Showing up

25 Jan '16 05:07:03 PM

'… and yet, on the other side, it is alleged that labor impairs the form, and breaks the spirit of man, and the laborers cry unanimously, 'We have no thoughts.''

24 Jan '16 08:41:44 PM

'Neither will he be betrayed to a book, and wrapped in a gown. The studious classes are their own victims: they are thin and pale, their feet are cold, their heads are hot, the night is without sleep, the day a fear of interruption, —pallor, squalor, hunger, and egotism. If you come near them, and see what conceits they entertain, —they are abstractionists, and spend their days and nights in dreaming some dream; in expecting the homage of society to some precious scheme built on a truth, but destitute of proportion in its presentment, of justness in its application, and of all energy of will in the schemer to embody and vitalize it.'

23 Jan '16 07:05:43 PM

A sudden urge to read the dictionary.

19 Jan '16 04:05:56 AM

How before what, whenever you don't know why.

18 Jan '16 10:53:07 PM

My approach so far to the Mulhall essay has been defined in terms of the ideas of voice and tradition. I've even been preferring, since including it in 'the book', to think of the title as 'How to give (your) voice to a tradition' rather than 'Mulhall against the anti-dogmatists'.

With the idea of myth given prominence, though, the first thing I find myself wanting to say, as it were by way of grammatical remark (without having thought anything through, including the remark), is:

We tell, retell, stories. We cannot tell myths, but only retell them.

18 Jan '16 10:38:58 PM

A couple years ago or so, I realized that several of the projects I had going but that weren't coming together made more sense if I thought of them together, so I started deliberately imagining them as a book. I've stopped and started work repeatedly since then, but mostly I've been preoccupied with working out the argument of the first essay in the book, on what it could mean to see Wittgenstein as a modernist philosopher. The topic is not exactly manageable, considering how little Cavell (my main source) develops it, but I'd gotten onto it because I had a nice idea about Mulhall in a different essay (the one referred to in the previous two entries, below) that required me to contest his reading of Cavell's idea of modernism, and doing so seemed like it would independently bear fruit. My preoccupation with the first essay developed especially once I started to think that 'cynicism' was a better term than 'nihilism' for covering a basic concern informing Cavell's own practice as a philosopher and writer, since it also seemed to explain some troublesome features of his interpretation of skepticism (particularly skepticism about others, and the relation thereof to literature).

I haven't really touched the Mulhall essay since then. What's been missing in it has been, basically, a focused sense of the substance of Mulhall's argument—since I began with an intuition about the way in which the argument (whatever its specifics) was being made. I've known that it should have to do with his conclusion, the link of which to the body of the book is none too clear because of the way he reaches it, but it's so large (original sin! the Good Samaritan!) that I haven't had many strong feelings one way or the other how the conclusion might relate to my sense of the book as a whole.

Aside from the diversion into modernism itself, I left my work on the essay with a little bit of textual detective work the import of which I might not have appreciated at the time. 'Myth' is a very poorly developed concept in Part Four of Cavell's Claim of Reason, important but often cropping up in ways that stymie understanding. By seizing upon it in his introductory reading of Cavell, Mulhall seems to promise to remedy that lack of development. At least, in a way I would expect, through explicit thematization of the concept of myth (thinking, maybe, of its significant role in the poetics of people like Frye or Todorov). He doesn't give that; per the index, what you get are mainly discussions of myth in the texts he's already reading, in situ. I suppose I took a look at these and at least noticed (because I bolded some text in my notes) that his most significant discussions of myth also locate it at doubly significant points in the texts he reads, and in his procedure of identifying moments of continuation (of originality, of renewal and the new) in, particularly, thinkers' subsequent texts. For Wittgenstein, a fairly continuous reading of the Investigations up til the point of the rule-following passages ends up focusing on the suggestion that 'the ways in which we talk about such rules… are in fact figurative or symbolic—more precisely, that they are mythological' (p. 139), which then gives way in Mulhall's text to a reprise of his 'aspect-seeing' reading (i.e., stressing the importance of Part II of the Investigations, which can be considered another text) of Wittgenstein. For Heidegger, after an initial reading of the quotation of Plato's Sophist (in which the Eleatic Stranger being quoted imagines having a conversation with 'tellers of myths about Being'), the concept of myth crops up in a reading of the myth of care in Being and Time which situates it as the turning point (which it is) between Division I and Division II, then quickly gives way to Mulhall's own transition to a reading of What is Called Thinking, where relations between myth, philosophy, and religion become the overarching theme.

The transition to the third part, on Kierkegaard, is made via Heidegger's failure to (adequately) acknowledge the greatest source of his own reading of Christianity, viz. in Kierkegaard's writings. But the point of contact, conceptually, between this part of Mulhall's account and earlier and later parts comes from Heidegger's invocation of Nietzsche (primarily from Zarathustra):

Heidegger cites a passage from Schopenhauer to drive home his central point: 'however immeasurable and massive the world may be, yet its existence hangs by one single thin thread: and that is the given individual consciousness by which it is constituted' (WTC 40). In other words, if (as Schopenhauer elsewhere puts it) 'the world is my idea', then the very existence of that world and everything in it is subject to scepticism; but this subjection is not a discovery about reality, about the way things are really set up between human beings and their world—it is rather created by a particular conceptualization of it. We set up the world and its objects in such a way that we set upon them; sceptical doubts assail us because we have assailed the independent reality of things by decomposing and thereby deposing them.

Thus far, Heidegger's account of scepticism does not differ in essentials from his general approach in Being and Time; but he goes beyond that old beginning in taking Nietzsche to have seen that this attack is fueled by the spirit of revenge; in other words, he takes scepticism about the external world to be a punishment we impose on reality for some species of suffering that we take it to have inflicted on us. And since vengeance typically aims to give or take like for like, an eye for an eye, Heidegger further implies that our decomposition and deposition of the world aims to inflict upon reality the kind of suffering that we take reality to have inflicted upon us. By means of the representational theory of thinking, and more generally by the technological cultural formation it exemplifies, we take revenge upon the world for what we experience as its attack upon our independence and reality, its attempts to decompose and so depose us. We do not allow the tree to stand where it stands, because we take ourselves to have suffered from the tree's refusal to let us stand where we stand. But how might we have come to think that—to experience our encounter with a tree in bloom as one in which we suffer decomposition and deposition? (pp. 303–304)

This all convinces me that the concept of myth plays a substantial, if not necessarily foregrounded, role in the book's argument. So it must be meaningful that in the third part, the one on 'Kierkegaard's Vision of Religion', myth drops out completely, although nearly every section addresses some significant aspect of literature or theater. That doesn't mean there's not a lot of interpretive work yet to do there, though.

What's occurred to me in the interim, having shifted the emphasis of my whole (imagined) book with the introduction of 'cynicism' as a key term for me, is that 'myth' is (duh) a key term in the philosophical critique of religion, among other things, a locale where cynicisms formal or informal are often at issue, so that perhaps I would do well, when trying to articulate my sense of the substance of Mulhall's argument, to suppose that he takes himself to be doing the same thing I take Cavell to be doing, attempting to make an uncynical response to a threat of cynicism, even, say, within a (philosophical) culture dominated by it.

I am prone to reading any argument favorable to religion as cynical (or delusional). I suppose my own sense of Cavell has always been that what I take to be his (more or less) rejection of or indifference toward religion is uncynically honest, so that I read any attempt to correct it as itself stemming from a cynical impulse. But probably a less cynical idea of dogmatics would allow that one can answer an anti-dogmatist uncynically, even if on behalf of the dogma.